Any debacle as bad as the Aldrich Ames spy case demands reforms. But there's room for wondering how far Washington should go in mingling the FBI with the CIA as part of those reforms.
For much of the 1980s, Ames, a CIA operative, fed secrets to the Soviet KGB that spoiled American cloak-and-dagger missions in the USSR and may have gotten 10 Russian double agents executed. Yet while Ames was using cash from the Soviet spy agency to buy a $540,000 home and a Jaguar, not to mention lying transparently about his foreign travels, the CIA never suspected a thing.In response to this fiasco, the Clinton administration has tentatively agreed to give the FBI more control over investigations of spying in this country.
Among the planned reforms are those that would assign a senior FBI agent to work in the CIA's counterintelligence office and a senior CIA official to work in the FBI's counterintelligence office. The FBI would also replace the CIA as the primary agency for supervising counterintelligence investigations in all U.S. spying agencies.
Viewed only in light of the Ames travesty, the idea make sense. While the far-from-wily Ames fooled his CIA colleagues for years, the FBI nailed him just months after it came in on the case. Also, the CIA took ages to bring in the FBI, and the CIA's foot-dragging compromised U.S. security.
Despite the Ames case, the fact remains that the CIA and FBI have distinct missions - spying and law enforcement, respectively. Unfortunately for proponents of the simple fix, both missions are important and sometimes contradictory. An FBI presence in the CIA's inner sanctum could cause the latter's mission to suffer consistently.
The FBI's strong suit is getting criminals prosecuted. But testimony in open court about spy cases can expose friendly agents to risk. Also, when a traitor is unmasked, shipping him right off to Leavenworth may not always be wise. Instead, pressuring him into passing misinformation to the bad guys may better serve the national interest. The conviction-minded FBI might understandably find it hard to abide such spycraft.
Moreover, a CIA-FBI linkage could be a step toward the formation of an American superintelligence organization on the KGB model. The KGB spied both abroad and at home; in various guises, it ran prison camps, staged show trials, even commanded an air force.
Not that America resembles Soviet Russia. But, as Scripps Howard News Service recently put it, "Imagine the CIA at its most `spooky,' as when it bumped off troublesome heads of state. Imagine the FBI at its most paranoid, as when it burglarized the offices of U.S. leftists. Now imagine these tendencies combined." Frightening, isn't it?
The CIA should be compelled to share timely spy-catching data with the FBI. But by no means should CIA operations be subject to anything like an FBI veto. That's no way to run an effective intelligence service.